There is elevated horror and there is full horror, but the mainstream only takes one of them seriously. Horror fans know this. Horror is not taken seriously, but that did not stop David Cronenberg from returning to form last year with his other-worldly dystopian film Crimes of the Future. Now his son, Branden, is following in the footsteps of his delightfully depraved father, but with a very clear concession to make. He agreed to only make the R-rated cut of his new film Infinity Pool available in theaters. This trend is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it has never been easier for a filmmaker to make a film. Horror is an understandably attractive genre for first-time filmmakers because it often needs fewer characters, quieter settings, and minimal requirements for lighting and production design. They are so easy to make that the genre is experiencing an unprecedented renaissance as I write this.
However, this financially fortunate aspect of the genre does not change the fact that our culture is still relatively unforgiving to horror filmmakers. At the end of the day, film is an economic medium.
I give a lot of credit to S.A. Bradley (from the Hellbent For Horror Podcast) for pointing out an ugly truth about something horror fans take for granted. In his two-part episode “Death by Convenience,” Bradley argues that convenience has hurt the horror genre. At the very same time that streaming platforms offered more and more avenues to consume horror, certain big platforms like Amazon have given preferential treatment to horror films that are more family-friendly.
Streaming services have apparently settled into a dynamic that theaters already adopt. They prioritize more commercially viable and family-friendly horror over more subversive and extreme varieties.
This is why, even in 2023, most theaters will not be showing the NC-17 version of Branden Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool at all. It is not malicious, it is just business.
Distributors will point to Showgirls back in the 90s as the one and only time they took an NC-17 film seriously. They pulled out all the stops and promoted the hell out of it. Its ultimate failure still serves as the final word on the matter if you ask any of them about it.
The NC-17 rating is regarded as a financial death sentence for a film—something that was explored at length in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. However, you would think that studios might have taken the hint by now that maybe—just maybe—there are enough of us weirdos out there that might be down for a horror film that’s just for grown-ups!
Infinity Pool does have some racy stuff in its NC-17 cut, to be sure. Those scandalous bits might have created an entirely unique experience for yours truly, and for those in the Sundance theater with whom I watched this incredibly bizarre film. These moments elicited very loud gasps and groans from an audience that surely wasn’t expecting to be seeing what they were seeing. The audience got to experience it together, though. If you want those bits spoiled, by the way, click here.
There is no question that the film warrants an NC-17 rating, but the more concerning trend seems to be filmmakers that are too quick to cater to an industry that refuses to make room for them.
Branden Cronenberg defends this system, which he admits is really only a problem in the US:
You make the film you want to make. You’re pragmatic about it because I want people to see it, I want people to see it in theaters, I want it to get the best release possible. You have to be pragmatic about it when you’re in film because there are so many weird forces shaping what you’re doing.
I get what he means, to a degree. I really respect it, actually. The audience completes the film. It’s a give-and-take.
I think that film is the most collaborative medium. In fact, I even think it’s more collaborative than theater. It is also a very commercial medium, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. I am not so cynical that I think ticket sales entirely reflect the quality of a film, but I also think that it does say something if a film does well commercially.
There is one problem with this attitude, however. Horror filmmakers do not do themselves any favors by being complicit in self-censoring for financial gain.
What does it say that Cronenberg’s vision is split entirely in two? A toned-down version for the masses, and a salacious version for our private consumption?
Perhaps I’m being a bit hard on filmmakers for not going all the way with horror. Horror icons like Ari Astor and Jordan Peele have, for years, denied that certain of their films are even horror at all. I wonder if the ego just craves too much to be liked.
Since when did we really care whether the Academy was going to nominate Mia Goth’s extremely Oscar-worthy performance as Pearl? We feel snubbed like the last kid picked for a dodgeball team. The cultural hegemony ignores us and has always looked down on horror, and that really bugs us. But why? Why should we care?
We long for the day when horror finally gets the respect we all know it deserves. Except, horror is a paradox.
At least some aspect of horror is appealing because it is not mainstream. That might sound pretentious and hipster-ish, but deep down you know it’s true. If you grew up on it, like I did, you know what I’m talking about.
I appreciate Mia Goth for speaking out about this problem. I am very appreciative of the cornucopia of bloody flicks to feast my eyes on these days.
But no one should be kidding themselves about horror becoming mainstream. It doesn’t have to be mainstream to be good.
This will be discussed further on the next episode of Anatomy Of Fear, so if you don’t want to miss it, subscribe. The podcast is on Spotify, Apple, and more. Also, check out our 2022 year-in-review episode here!